Archive for the ‘Scotland’ Category

PostHeaderIcon Murder on the Rise

I’m not talking about the latest crime statistics here.  I’m talking the writing genre that is crime fiction.  Whether it’s ‘Nordic Noir’ or home-grown crime thrillers, there has been a definite surge in both interest and output over the last decade.  There have been awards for crime writing for many years -The Golden Dagger is the biggest in the world- and now there are crime writing festivals a-plenty, from the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival to Bloody Scotland.

crime fictionIn my home country (Scotland) there seems to be a plethora of dark writers, from established international authors like Ian Rankin, Stuart MacBride, Val MacDiarmid, Denise Mina, Alex Gray and Ann Cleeves, to perhaps less well known writers like Alan Guthrie, and Peter May, and newer writers like Helen Forbes and LG Thomson.

The UK has a fine tradition of psychological thrillers – not necessarily ’crime’ or ‘murder’ (think Hitchcock here) and a rich seam of ‘Who Dunnits’ and detective fiction.  The ‘Golden Age’ was always considered to be the 1890’s to the mid 1900’s with the likes of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Michael Innes topping the popularity stakes.  They weren’t so much about literary style and rounded character but much more about the ‘whodunnit’ formula which allowed readers to guess who the murderer might be, with a little deliberate misleading, though rarely with too many surprises.

I read Agatha Christie in my youth, and bored easily of the formulaic approach.  It left me with a bad taste about crime writing in general, although I don’t deny that it was often clever and compelling, and very, very, popular. However, as a result I’ve tended to avoid the genre, until now.

My partner is an avid crime writing reader and has catholic tastes.  I’ve never much been persuaded by his gory descriptions (Stuart MacBride and Tony Parsons spring to mind) although when I ran out of reading matter one wet afternoon, I was tempted to a few Ian Rankin books, and was pleasantly surprised.  Although I got annoyed with Rebus after a while, it opened my mind to the fact that crime writers can handle plot development and character with the best of them.

We both support and attend a local literary salon which invites along publishers, agents and writers.  A surprising number of the authors we’ve had to speak are crime writers: the ubiquitous Ian Rankin, Denise Mina, Alan Guthrie, Lin Anderson, Doug Johnstone and LG Thomson to name a few.  Their insight into writing both plot and character have been enlightening.  When one of our own members – Helen Forbes- produced a first novel in the genre, I bought it in the spirit of supporting a fellow member, and ended up enjoying the book enormously.

I’ve been impressed with excerpts from Denise’s books, and thoroughly enjoyed the readings from LG Thomson at the launch of Emergent’s XpoNorth festival in 2015.  These are writers who write gritty interesting characters and multi-faceted plots. Crime may be the genre of choice, but there are good stories here for the telling.  It’s changed my perspective, and reading choices.

I don’t tend to like graphic bloody films, and in some ways books can be as bad if you have a visual imagination, so I’ll still avoid those especially gruesome tomes and stick to something with a little more intrigue and a little less blood.

Edmund Wilson suggested that “reading detective stories is simply a kind of vice that, for silliness and minor harmfulness, ranks somewhere between crossword puzzles and smoking” and perhaps he is right.  Auden described himself as an ‘addict’ of the genre, and I have friends who can’t get enough of their ‘fix’ and read crime fiction voraciously and exclusively. There is certainly a popular and wide appeal and this sort of fiction is no longer separated into dark corners of bookshops but competes on its own terms taking up more inches of shelf space than some supposedly worthier tomes.

John Sutherland (former chairman of the judging panel for one of the foremost literary prizes) had the view that submitting a crime novel for the Booker Prize would be: “like putting a donkey into the Grand National” This may still be the view held by ‘literary’ types, but is a kind of literary snobbery that puts people off reading, rather than encouraging them.  And with around 1 in 3 new novels being crime fiction, not too many people will be giving too much gravitas to these views.

I doubt if the current assent of the crime novel will breed a race of psychopathic writers, or a nation of murderers.  My hope is it will continue to produce a nation of readers, and that we will continue to get good quality new crime writers telling stories of the complexity of human nature, and questioning how we judge people.

L G Thomson’s website:

Helen Forbes Facebook Page:

Bloody Scotland Website:

PostHeaderIcon Secret Life of Mammals

Image result for shrew


We found a shrew on the drive the other day.  Sadly, it was dead, though recently so.  It looked slightly dented around the middle, fur a little ruffled, like something might have had it in its jaws, though there were no bite marks.  I felt a pang of sorrow for its lost little  life, such a perfect and gorgeous creature.  I stroked its velvet fur a few times before we laid it to rest.

The shrew has secrets I didn’t know about: toxic saliva, -deadly enough to kill a rabbit- and powerful scent glands that give off an unpleasant odour, enough to cause a cat or fox to drop it, though sadly in this case, not saving its life.  Apparently birds have little or no sense of smell, so birds of prey will be undeterred by this evolutionary defence mechanism.

The SPCA recently found an abandoned pine marten quite close to where we live, and a few weeks ago we saw a badger trundle across the road. I feel very privileged to live in a part of the country where these sightings are not uncommon. It’s easy to be impressed with these large, ‘sexy’ mammals, but we also get lots of little mammals in the garden: shrews, voles, mice and weasels, and I am equally impressed with their wile, and I am sure I will be impressed by the things about them I have yet to find out.

If you want to find out more about wildlife and share what wildlife you have seen look at ‘The Wild Outside‘ .  The Scottish Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals can be found by clicking this link.  See BBC Nature for additional information.


photo from BBC archives



PostHeaderIcon 60 Degrees North


A similar latitude to Moscow, and closer to Norway than London, Shetland is a collaboration of about 100 islands, only 16 of which are inhabited.  Described as a ‘subarctic archipelago’ of Scotland, it’s as far north as you can go, and still be in the UK.   In reality it is a world apart from the UK, Europe, and even Scotland.  The ferry crossing is 12 hours from Aberdeen to Lerwick, and can often be rough.  It gives you plenty of time to adjust to a holiday in such a remote location, surrounded by sea and nothing else.

I think Turner, the artist, would have liked Shetland: a place of light, and water, always changing.  It’s one of the charms of the north of Scotland, and is particularly applicable to Shetland where the light, and the sea, can change from one minute to the next.  Stunning beaches and wide open skies characterise the landscape.  There are hardly any trees, and the wild scarcely populated places can seem by turns both barren and captivating.

I was hooked the first time I visited.  A long weekend, and a whistle-stop tour of some of the key visitor attractions, persuaded me I needed longer there, and finally, last September, I went back.  I felt in-tune with the place instantly.  The weather was stunning, and gave me plenty of opportunity to take advantage of the many spectacular sandy beaches, accessed from a rugged coastline.  Nowhere in Shetland is more than 3 miles from the sea, and if you’re a water-baby, like me, that’s a joyous statistic.  The beaches are often described as ‘empty’, though that’s not strictly true.  Wildlife, particularly birdlife, is abundant in the Shetlands Isles, and it’s difficult to go anywhere without experiencing something of that richness of life.  Birdwatchers are in their element with puffins, bonxies -the local name for great skuas- and gannets evident in larger numbers than anywhere else in the UK. Even if you’re not a bird watcher, it’s difficult not to be impressed by the scale of some of the colonies.  Noss is home to 150,000 gannets in the height of the breeding season, and a spectacular sight at any time, with birds clamouring for cliff space, or diving for food.  Puffins are riotous little birds, with their own charm and character.  I watched them for ages, and I’m no ‘twitcher’!

The shore is home to seals a-plenty, and it’s not difficult to get reasonable shots, if you’re a photographer, or even if you’re not.  Shetland is also the place to see otters.  The islands are one of the otter’s main strongholds in the UK, with numbers up to about a thousand.  You can see them during the daytime here, helped by the extra hours of daylight in the summer.

Further out at sea you might see dolphins, and even whales.  One of the main whale migration routes is 40 miles west, out on the edge of the continental shelf, and it’s possible to charter a boat to this area, although chance sightings of whales are possible on any boat trip, and I was lucky enough to catch the tail end of a breach on one such trip.

There’s plenty of impressive coastline to see, if you’re sea legs aren’t great, and Eashaness, on the northwest tip of the mainland is the result of crashing waves making their mark with saw-toothed stacks and a jagged coastline.  Dramatic scenery like this is not uncommon in this part of the world.  There are more soothing coastlines, and quiet sandy beaches, Meal Beach on Burra, is one such place where I spent a pleasant morning in the sunshine, seeing 2 dogs and 4 people in the whole time I was there.

Another are of the coastline worth exploring is the tombola at St Ninians Isle.  Reputedly the most spectacular example in Britain.  I hadn’t seen one before, didn’t even know what one was.  It was strange walking across the strip of sand and shell, sea pressing on either side.

If wildlife and coastline isn’t your thing, then perhaps Shetland isn’t the destination for you, although there is plenty of history, and, my other main interest, food.  Shetlanders have to be pretty self-sufficient, and seafood and grass-fed animals are very evident on menus.  There are plenty of local delicacies and some excellent cafes and restaurants.  I stayed on an organic sheep farm, and both their wool and meat could be bought locally.  On a trip to Yell and Unst, we were offered lobsters for our tea, by a local fisherman who we met on the ferry.  He refused to take anything for the catch.

The friendliness of Shetlanders should be legendary.  Despite the TV programme ‘Shetland’ giving the impression that a murder is committed every week on the islands, in reality, there’s little crime.  People know each other, and there’s a genuine sense of community.  People will still speak to you, visitor, or islander, and even children waved at us as we drove past in the car!

It is not an idyllic place to live, I’m sure.  The weather can be harsh as Atlantic storms batter the coastline, especially in the winter.  In spite of the oil industry, employment is an issue, especially for young people.  All the difficulties of rural life are multiplied ten-fold on an island.

There’s lots more to be said about Shetland, I’ve not even touched on the crafts, or the baking, or the Vikings, for example.  You can find out more on the Visit Shetland website]

For me, Shetland is about wildness, the elements and particularly the sea, and I’m sure I will be returning to immerse myself in its enchantments again before too long.P9250223P9250223